You do not need permission to do the right thing. No one can give you permission to do the wrong thing.

I went to college in 1970. By 1974 I had a degree in mathematics and experience hitchhiking  to every state of the union except for Alaska and Hawaii; perhaps 30,000 miles in all.

I learned more about how to live from those experiences than anything I learned in a school. Here is the story of what I learned from a man in the pick-up truck who took my girlfriend and me from central Minnesota to just west of Fargo, North Dakota.

Had I not learned this lesson my life would have been very different; not only would I have been much less inventive I would not have had the courage to stand up to some of the shenanigans I saw during the 30 years I was on Wall Street.

I’ll call him Jeb. I don’t remember his name, but during Prohibition he used to bootleg whisky, so Jeb sounds like a good bootlegger’s name, don’t you think?

He said the pay was good and it was exciting work because the cops were always chasing you, but it wasn’t very intellectual. The only creative thing he learned was the Bootlegger’s K-Turn. He left the Interstate for a side road to show us how it is done. I’ll draw it for you: Continue reading “You do not need permission to do the right thing. No one can give you permission to do the wrong thing.”

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How to write if you cannot concentrate.

RieurIFM-1024x716LevelAdjusted

Jack Rieur was the most wonderful teacher I ever had and perhaps the best teacher anywhere on the planet and for all time. I first met him in 1963 when he was my 6th grade teacher and we have kept in touch ever since.

Sure, he covered the state mandated syllabus, but what he really taught was that the world was something we go out and live in and not read about in the classroom. And learning was fun; the most fun you can ever have. And if you pay attention you can learn from life itself and the point wasn’t that there was a test at the end of the semester but later in life you had to teach others because the human race is not a race to the finish but a relay race where near the finish line we must pass the baton.

For example, he taught geography not from the book but from the slides he took personally when he visited all the places in the book. Here is a picture I took of him back when he was a spry 89-year-old in front of the 79,662 slides he used in practicing his craft and that have since been digitized and stored by the Archives at the Consortium Library. I have been to more than 40 countries so far and have set up housekeeping in a few (and I’m no where near done). Had I not had him I might have run the risk of having gone to Canada once and seen a few other countries for a few hours each on a cruise.

He died this last August but his spirit lives on in me. For example he came to my rescue just now when I was stuck writing one thing and I got unstuck by writing something else.

Mr. Rieur’s other name was Jack but he insisted his sixth grader’s call him Mr. Rieur. It was not a matter of respect for age but of class. You only got to call him Jack if you became a teacher too. Well I have approached raising my children and managing my businesses and all my writing as a teacher, and so I think I have earned the right to call him Jack posthumously. However if you have done none of those things then please call him Mr. Rieur out of respect.

How to write if you cannot concentrate.

People tell me that they cannot concentrate long enough to write anything coherent that isn’t trite or a cut-and-paste job of things off the web, which doesn’t count anyway.

I say, “So?” Continue reading “How to write if you cannot concentrate.”

Stories from Germany

by: Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com


luftwaffeA Luftwaffe Airman’s Daughter

In 1980, my girlfriend and I were traveling on a rail pass. We left from Milan bound for Frankfurt only because that is where the train went.

A German businessman sat across from us and asked, “Where are you going?”

“Frankfurt.”

“Why? Frankfurt is so boring. You should go to Wiesbaden instead.”

We asked, “Why?”

“Because that is where we live and you will stay with us.”

His wife spoke English with a perfect British accent. It turned out her father had been in the Luftwaffe and had been shot down during the Battle of Britain. He became best friends with a prison guard, and after the war during the summers they would swap children. She grew up partially in England.

She said the difference between the treatment of prisoners by the British and the Germans was astonishing.

We all cried.

We were there having dinner with them because they had decided to make it a habit of being kind to strangers; which is not a bad policy even when the stranger had recently been trying to blow up your country.

treblantwoman

Beautiful Women of the GDR

I won a British Airways contest based on my social entrepreneurship site, No Shortage of Work, and the prize was airfare to anywhere BA flies. I put a notice on my profile on Europe’s equivalent of LinkedIn called Xing. Dozens of people said they would love to meet me in person so I flew into Frankfurt, then Cologne, and flew out of Hamburg and for 11 days I spent my time meeting people in person I’d only corresponded with before on Xing.

Although my sample size is very small, I have the following observation:

The most interesting, dynamic, interesting, hard-working, fearless, and interesting people I met were:

1) Female

2) Beautiful

3) From East Germany, but were now in the West.

4) Were born under Communism, but grew into adulthood after the fall of the Wall.

My sample size was small and I am partial to young beautiful women so perhaps that is why I find them more interesting than old male businessmen like me, but I still think there is something to this.

What do you think?

 

germanunemployment

An Unemployed German

In 2004, in Nuremberg, I met Kai, a very talented 51-year-old programmer who had been unemployed for 2 years, so my wife and I took him to dinner. His attitudes were self-defeating and I attacked every one of his beliefs:

“The economy is terrible.”  So, are you just going to wait for it to improve?

“The government is incompetent.”  Are you going to run for office and fix it?

“I’ve only had 2 interviews and they both ended abruptly when they learned my age.”  People are prejudiced. Do you have a plan for how you are going to change them, or are you going to take a different approach?

“I don’t have a college degree.” That hasn’t stopped you for 30 years.

“Nobody cares.” There is a whole community of programmers just like you. Are you going to continue ignoring them or are you going to start caring about them and see if they care back?

“There is no work.” There is never a shortage of work even when there is a shortage of jobs. Find some work and do it even if you aren’t paid.

“I’ve built some amazing software on my own, but can’t sell it.” Are you going to learn to sell, partner with someone who can, or give up on doing what you want and start doing what other people want?

“There are no jobs in Germany.”  You’re in the EU now so you can go where there are jobs.

“My English isn’t good enough.”  Sure it is; I understand you perfectly. If you don’t understand me it isn’t because of your language skills, it is because of how you are thinking.

My wife kept kicking me under the table and whispered, “He just wants your sympathy.”

I said, “Perhaps, but it isn’t what he needs.”

We were living in London at the time and he even flew over to spend a weekend with me to get more of my abuse.

Soon he got unstuck and landed a job in Copenhagen (good pay, company apartment, flight home every other weekend) and a year later he moved to England for another job.

Kai and I have become good friends and my wife and I stayed with him outside London in November 2010.

He says he hates going back to Germany because too many people there think the way he used to.

I was speaking to a group of programmers, many of whom were looking for work. I asked Kai to write a short essay explaining what he learned, and how he changed his approach to what some call “networking.” Here is what he produced:

KaiStory

Things VS People

© 2009 Brooke Allen
brooke@brooketallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com
Originally published October, 2009, in International Family Magazine
Republished in Folks Magazine on 10/24/09.

When I was 16, my dad told me to get in the car – we were going for a ride. We drove to Bolek’s Foreign Car Service. My dad told Bolek that his son needed to learn how to work and he would drop me there every Saturday morning. He told Bolek that I wasn’t worth anything so he shouldn’t pay me anything. He gave Bolek $100 as an advance against any damage I might do. Then he drove off.

Over the next year I learned to get my hands dirty, how to use tools, and how things worked.

– – –

When my dad had a problem, we went to visit Frank at Frank’s hardware store.

Frank was a problem solver and his store was a huge collection of tools and parts for solving problems.

“Looks like this is a job for a ¾ inch bit and a stove bolt.” “I’d use a rubber coupling and a hose clamp.” “An arc welder is better for that than acetylene.”

– – –

Decades later, I became a dad too.

– – –

I sat next to a four-year-old girl at a neighbor’s dinner table.

“I hate broccoli. How come I never get what I want? I hate you.” She began pounding the table and crying.

While her parents were in the kitchen making her French fries, I turned to her and asked, “Wow. How do you do that?”

Her crying stopped abruptly and she gave me a sly smile. “You want to yell and make a lot of noise. Don’t stop. It really helps if you can cry.”

“But, why do I want to do that?”

“Because that way you get what you want.”

A young boy was given a present by his divorced dad at Cub Scout camp.

“But mommy gave me two presents, and both of them were nicer than this.” He wrinkled his nose.

The dad frowned, “You don’t think this is the only thing I got you, do you?” That afternoon, the father left the camp to go shopping.

– – –

I sat on the abandoned lifeguard chair as I watched a young girl run across the sand.

She twisted her ankle and fell in a heap.

She began crying hysterically.

Suddenly she stopped, stood, and looked around. Her father was far away; out of earshot.

She collapsed again and bawled even louder.

She stood again. Her father had wandered off so she resumed joyfully running down the beach.

– – –

Today, I can tell you what everything in a hardware store is used for.

But I am terrible at getting other people to do what I want.

Teach your children to manipulate things, not people.

 

(And the best way to teach them not to manipulate people is to not let them manipulate you.)

Crime Prevention

Many lock in only one door. Concept of security.

© 2009 Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com
Originally published September, 2009 in International Family Magazine

A week after I moved to Manhattan, I went to a street fair and found there a policeman with a big sign: HELP US PREVENT CRIME

I approached, “I’m game. How can I help you prevent crime?”

He said, “By putting three locks on your door.”

“But I already have two locks on my door, and I find it really annoying. How does having three prevent crime?”

“Years ago, everyone had one lock, so we told them to get two. Now everyone has two, so you need three.”

“But how does having three prevent crime?”

“The thing is, crooks are lazy… if they weren’t they’d get jobs. Your goal is to make your door harder to break into than the next one.”

“But that doesn’t prevent crime. It just gets my neighbor broken into instead of me.”

He laughed, “What do you care?”

A girl moved in across the hall a few months later. She did not have a phone and frequently asked to borrow mine, so I began leaving my door open. She reciprocated, and soon a bunch of us on the floor did. Our tiny apartments became less claustrophobic. Friendlier too…

There were break-ins in our building. But not on our floor – even though none of us bought that third lock. Perhaps it was because we were looking out for each other.

It takes community to prevent crime, and communities are made from open doors, not locked ones.

Putting more locks on your door prevents crime just like stuffing your face prevents hunger.

Fire Was No Stranger to Tokyo

© 2007 Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com

Just before noon on September 1st, 1923, an earthquake struck Tokyo. Since so many people were using fire to cook their lunch, nearly the entire city was set ablaze. High winds (there was a typhoon just off the coast) spread the fires rapidly. More than half a million homes were destroyed and nearly two million people were left homeless. Over one hundred thousand perished.

During World War II, the 20th and 21st bomber commands repeatedly firebombed the city. On a single night (March 10, 1945) 279 B-29s Superfortress bombers destroyed 25% of the city and claimed another 100,000 lives.

In 1990 we moved from New York City to Tokyo. We had mixed feelings about finding a place near a Minato-ku firehouse. In New York, we had lived down the block from Engine Company # 5 where the friendly firefighters would let our children climb on their truck whenever we passed. On the other hand, we were frequently woken by their sirens.

Yet we never heard a single fire truck or even saw one on the streets of Tokyo for the nearly three years we lived there. To this day I can not tell you what one sounds like.

One night, we were having dinner at Tony Roma’s Place for Ribs (which is right next to the Hard Rock Café in Roppongi). At the adjacent table was an obviously American couple. We asked if they were tourists.

“Not exactly.”

“Are you on business?”

“Kind of.”

It turns out he was a fireman from Dallas, Texas. A philanthropist had paid for 50 firefighters (one from each State) to come to Tokyo to learn from the Japanese.

“How is it going?”

“Kind of weird.”  On Sunday night they had had a cocktail reception. Monday morning they visited a firehouse where they discovered that Japanese fire trucks were just like American, only smaller.

That afternoon the firefighters were taken to the Tokyo headquarters. They had expected to find high-tech computers but instead they were shown something out of the 50’s; a map with push-pins.

From Monday afternoon until the day when we met them (Thursday), the 50 firefighters were treated to boring lectures by the Fire Chief for all of Tokyo. Eventually they couldn’t take it any more and one of them asked, “When can we go out on a call?”

The Fire Chief responded, “We will go out on a call as soon as we have one. We haven’t had a call all week.” Apparently, they hadn’t had one for many weeks.

Eve and I were as flabbergasted. “How do they do that?” we asked.

“We asked the same question?”

And the Fire Chief’s response: “That is what I have been telling you all week.”

“So,” we asked our man from Dallas, “What did he say?”

“We don’t know,” he answered, “None of us were listening.”

So, I can not tell you why they have so few fires in Tokyo these days, but I can tell you why we have dozens, even hundreds, of calls each night in our major cities.

We don’t listen.

If someone is trying to tell you something, you should try to listen.

The Magical Power of Imagination

© 2007 Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com
Originally published in International Family Magazine

As an undergraduate I went on a date to see a famous “mentalist”. I find magicians entertaining. My date was eager to show me proof of the supernatural. I was entertained and she found her evidence.

His first feat was to control the minds of two volunteers. He had asked the promoters to provide a selection of decks of cards. Two volunteers each chose a deck and shuffled them. The volunteers sat at desks a few feet apart, each with a face-down deck.

The mentalist then remembered that the effect was difficult if the decks contained any jokers so he quickly removed them.

Each volunteer was asked to cut the deck about a third of the way into the pack and turn those cards over, placing them face up on top of the rest of the deck. Then they were to repeat the process, cutting past the face-up cards and turn them over again.

Finally, he used his mind to command the volunteers to remove the face-up cards so as to find the first face-down card.

Amazingly, they both had found the eight of clubs.

“See,” said she.

“I see,” said I.

He asked the audience to think of a number between one and one hundred, both digits odd but not the same. For example, 15 and 91 would be OK but 55 was not. We all thought of a number.

“I can sense many of you are thinking of 37… or perhaps 73. Raise your hand if I am right?”

Many hands went up. Not all, but certainly more than one percent.

She was thinking of 37.  I was thinking of 88. She was much better than me at following instructions..

“Do the math,” she said.

“I have,” I said.

I left amused. She left with a renewed faith.

While in graduate school I saw an act called the Asparagus Valley Cultural Society featuring two magicians who would later work together as Penn and Teller. They claimed to be no more than entertainers. They were very entertaining.

In 2005, thirty years after first seeing him on stage, I heard Penn Jillette’s essay on National Public Radio entitled “There is no God.”

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5015557

Like many people, he and I believe there is no God.

But I do believe in providence even though one definition is: “a manifestation of God’s foresightful care for his creatures.”

In high school, I imagined I would find something in college that would excite my passions. Three years later I did.

I imagined I could make a living at it, and for thirty years I have.

I imagined I would find a woman to love and ten years later I did.

We imagined having wonderful children and we have.

I imagined writing stories for them and I have.

I imagined that someone would be interested in publishing some of those stories and at Sea-Tac airport I met Catherine Wayland and she did. Here they are.

If you imagine that there is a foresightful God looking out for you, you will find ample evidence that there is. Even if there isn’t.

You don’t need to believe in God to trust in providence.